Could kindness make a happier and healthier workplace?

“…kindness is ‘the new cool'” – Lee Rowland in The Psychologist (February 2018)

When the world increasingly feels like a dark place and with differences being more of a focus than what unites us, every day acts of kindness and compassion can act as a much-needed buffer. It’s why I believe people in the UK have become pretty obsessed with Gareth Southgate (the England football team manager) and his kind and emotionally intelligent leadership. And I think it’s why so many people followed and were inspired by the story of the rescue of the young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand.

As Lee Rowland said, in his piece in February’s The Psychologist, “In the current political, economic, and environmental climate, having something like kindness to believe in is vital for keeping us positive and hopeful”. This piece was a warm-up to the research conducted by Rowland and his colleagues, recently been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The research

The research, led by the University of Oxford and in partnership with kindness.org, explored whether kindness interventions boosted well-being.

The researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of experimental evidence relating to acts of kindness and its impact on well-being. Using their inclusion criteria of only focusing on randomised control studies, the team whittled their review down to 24 articles encompassing 27 studies in which over 4,000 people took part.

The findings

Based on their analysis, the researchers call into question whether there is a causal relationship between kindness and well-being, i.e. that being kind causes greater well-being. However, they did find a modest (small to medium) effect of performing acts of kindness on both well-being and happiness.

There are several notes of caution with this research, namely:

  • The small participant numbers for each of the 27 studies analysed. The average sample size was 79 which is below the ideal minimum of 100;
  • Most participants were students, which means the findings may not be truly representative;
  • The studies didn’t look at different people performing acts of kindness under different conditions; and
  • There was little focus in the studies of the long-term effects of kindness.

Implications and solutions

While the researchers cite a modest effect of being kind on well-being and happiness, nonetheless creating a kind workplace is still something that should be an aim.

However, as the research states, “If happiness causes helping (rather than the other way around), then forcing unhappy people to help may make them less happy still” meaning that respecting individual differences and context is key. You can’t force people to be kind, just as you can’t force them to be happy. If you are a manager reading this then a good place to start is with you. After all, how you behave is the one thing we know you can control.

Here are three things which might help you:

  1. Check out the Kindness Curriculum by University of Wisconsin-Madison – a set of practices for use in pre-school classrooms. Why not do something similar as part of any management and leadership programmes in your organisation?
  2. Check out Kindness.org – a digital platform set up “to inspire small ripples of everyday compassion” around the world. Why not share the website with your team and discuss the case studies, and ideas for being kind at work, at your next team meeting? 
  3. Make sure you and your team members are getting enough rest and taking their lunch breaks. While this particular research didn’t find a causal relationship between kindness and well-being and happiness, a cross-sectional study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that “…feeling exhausted comes along with negative effects, such as reduced helping behaviour”.

Related blog posts:

Research reference:

Curry, O.S., Rowland, L.A., van Lissa, C.J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J. & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320-329.

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